Fort Pillow reminds us that during time of war, horrible things happen that we can hardly imagine during time of peace. A military victory for the Confederacy, the capture of Fort Pillow is one of the most controversial engagements of the Civil War. During this virtual tour, we’ll give you a brief summary of what happened there.
The first thing you should ask yourself about a fort — any fort — is “why was this here, as opposed to being somewhere else?” Fort Pillow is on the western edge of Tennessee, about 40 miles north of Memphis. During the war, control of the Mississippi River was crucial to the South, because the Confederate government realized that cities along the river such as Memphis, New Orleans, and Vicksburg (Mississippi) were vulnerable (the Union Navy was much more formidable than the Confederate Navy). Fort Pillow was built because there is a bluff here which, at that time, towered over the Mississippi River. From the fort, troops could see, and fire upon, boats coming from both directions.
If you come to Fort Pillow State Historic Park today, you have to imagine some of this, because several things have changed since 1864. For one thing, the Mississippi River has actually shifted a few miles to the west (this happened naturally). For another, the large bluff on which the fort sits is entirely overgrown with trees. When the fort was in active use, all trees had been cut down.
The fort was originally built by Confederate engineers and slaves in 1861. It consisted of a small inner fort surrounded by three stages of semicircular earthworks (or, another way of putting it, three long walls of dirt meant to protect the people inside from invaders).
The entire project was bigger than you will probably visualize; a walk all the way around the outer line of earthworks was a 13-mile hike. In fact, the fort’s immense size was a mistake; in March 1862 a Confederate general estimated it would take 15,000 troops and a large number of guns to properly defend it.
With the Union Navy advancing along the Mississippi River, the Confederate Army abandoned Fort Pillow in June 1862. For the next two years the fort was occupied by a relatively small cadre of various union troops. With General Sherman’s Union Army working its way through Chattanooga into Georgia, and with General Lee’s Confederate Army protecting Richmond, there was no sign that Fort Pillow would ever be attacked again. By 1864 the fort was being held by 600 troops. About half were white and half black, and the Union troops were commanded by Major Lionel Booth.
By the spring of 1864 the war in Tennessee was going badly for the Confederate cause. About the only consistent winner on the battlefield in Tennessee was a small army of cavalry troops (troops that fought on horseback) under the command of General Nathan Bedford Forrest. In April of that year, Forrest decided to attack Fort Pillow. Although the reasons for this decision are open to speculation, Forrest’s army needed food, supplies, ammunition, and guns that they knew that they would find at the fort, and they also felt like they could score a military victory there.
Confederate troops attacked at 6 a.m. on April 12, 1864, moving to the scene on horseback, then dismounting and attacking like infantry soldiers. Against the poorly designed and defended fort, the relatively inexperienced Union troops were no match to Forrest’s 1,600 battle-hardened Confederates. Among the people killed during the early fighting was Union Major Booth; after he was shot and killed command of the fort fell to Major William Bradford.
At 2 p.m. that day, Forrest sent a letter to the fort demanding the Union commander to surrender. Bradford refused to do so for reasons that we aren’t sure about today; it is possible that he felt like his men still had a chance because of the presence on the river of a small U.S. Navy gunboat called the USS New Era. After a cease fire that lasted about half an hour, the fighting resumed, and in a short time Confederate forces began scaling the fort’s innermost walls.
To this day, people argue about what happened then.
According to Northern newspapers, and according to a U.S. Congressional hearing into the events, Confederate troops continued to kill Union soldiers as they attempted to surrender — especially the ones that were black. “The blacks and their officers were shot down, bayoneted and put to the sword in cold blood — the helpless victims of the perfidy by which they were overpowered,” the New York Times reported. Because of such accounts, the incident became known as the Fort Pillow Massacre. “Remember Fort Pillow” thus became a rallying cry for many in the North, and for black Americans who heard the story.
Forrest’s men, on the other hand, later maintained that the Union troops kept their weapons and continued to fire as they fled down the embankment in the direction of the Mississippi River and the U.S. Navy gunboat. This refusal to surrender, they insisted, is what caused so many of them to be killed.
People also argue about General Forrest’s role in what took place. Some believe that he told and encouraged his men to shoot Union soldiers even after they tried to surrender, especially ones that were African American. Other accounts claim that he screamed at his men to stop firing at surrendered troops.
When the fighting had ceased that day, about 20 Confederates had died. Meanwhile nearly 300 Union troops were killed, and about two-thirds of those were black. In fact, African-American soldiers had a 63 percent casualty rate that day — which is unbelievable even by Civil War standards — making Fort Pillow one of the saddest days in African American history.
If you want to know more about Fort Pillow, we recommend reading the following:
- From Civil War fort to State Park: A History of Fort Pillow State Historic Area by Strickland and Huebner (for sale at Fort Pillow State Historic Park)
- “Remember Fort Pillow! Politics, Atrocity Propaganda, and the Evolution of Hard War,” in Black Flag Over Dixie: Racial Atrocities and Reprisals in the Civil War
- “The Fort Pillow Massacre: A Fresh Examination of the Evidence,” in Civil War History 4 (1958)
Or find another book or article in the library. We do not recommend that you research this subject on the Internet, because there is a lot of misguided information about this particular event on line.